OBITUARY: JOHN REILLY

by
30 March 2010

The Revd Jonathan Evens writes:

JOHN REILLY, who died on 7 Feb­ruary, aged 81, was a significant figure in the world of religious art.

Born in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, in 1928, he spent his early child­hood at Kingston-upon-Thames and, although the family moved to Leeds, returned to train at Kingston-upon-Thames Art College from 1949 to 1952, before moving to the Isle of Wight in 1954, initially for a seasonal job.

There, he met the potter Joe Lester, sen., with whom he worked for a time, before establishing the Ventnor Pottery Studio in 1958 with his wife, Elspeth Henderson. He specialised in plaques and tiles in a variety of styles, and he produced them until the pottery’s closure in 1985. He ceased his ceramic work in order to con­centrate on painting.

Reilly once wrote that his ambition had “always been to paint a picture which perfectly weds form and content”. This was in order to “express in visible form the oneness and unity” of the invisible power “which binds all things into one whole”. To do this, he used the greater freedom of expression that modern movements in art have given to artists to develop a visual language of forms and colours which expressed “some­thing of their deeper spiritual sig­nificance”.

He frequently based his works on a central circle (often, the sun) from which facets of colour emanate, like ripples on the surface of a stream. The painting’s imagery was then set within these facets, each figure or object being embedded in the overall patterning of the painting and related to the environmental whole that Reilly created.

By these means, fragments of form and colour (the facets of the painting’s patterning) and the images that they contain were united to circle harmoniously around and within God, which Reilly understood to be the central life and intelligence that is the light of the world. Works such as Let There Be Light and The Fourth Day of Creation — Universal Power utilised these methods and meanings, and contained and con­veyed huge energy and resolution as a result.

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Guillaume Apollinaire wrote that the “works of the Orphic artist must simultaneously give a pure aesthetic pleasure, a structure which is self-evident, and a sublime meaning” — a description that it would be entirely appropriate to apply to Reilly’s works. Reilly said of his work: “My paintings are not concerned with the surface appearance of people or things, but try to express something of the fun­damental spiritual reality behind this surface appearance. I try to express in visible form the oneness and unity of this invisible power, binding all things into one whole. I try to express some­thing of the universal and timeless truths behind the stories of the Bible.”

In 1964, a BBC programme, View­point, was made on his work. His work is held in many public collections throughout the UK and abroad, including the Methodist Collection of Modern Christian Art, and is on permanent display at Sarum College, Salisbury, and Gaunt’s House, Wimborne. A book of his major paintings, The Painted Word: Paintings by John Reilly (Cross Publishing), was published in 2009 (Books, 28 August 2009).

He is survived by his second wife, Jill, and daughters, Kim and Jaki.

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